A word about set designers

For a number of years now, I’ve noticed that there are various and sundry misconceptions, mostly among non-professional theatre groups, about set designers and what they do. So I’m going to use this post to try to clarify it, and still keep it (reasonably) brief and simple.

For the purposes of this post, live theatre in the U.S. can be divided into two groups: professional (which includes Broadway and similar theatres across the country, along with regional theatres) and non-professional, which consists of community theatres, high schools, and colleges. There is also a difference between for-profit theatres and non-profit ones, but it’s not really relevant here.

The productions in professional companies are mostly staffed by full-time actors, directors, choreographers, designers, and so forth, most of whom belong to one or more trade unions which require some form of entrance exam or portfolio review. Designers, for example, are members of USAA/IATSE, which they join after passing a portfolio review by a board of established designers. The vast majority of these designers have degrees (sometimes advanced degrees) from professional training programs at universities that offer them, and have then worked with established designers for a few years before heading out on their own. They are generally taught the process I described here in A Set Design From Start to Finish or something very similar to it.

In non-professional theatre, however, there are no unions, entrance exams, or similar things. Community theatres are mostly staffed by people who have full-time jobs in other fields, or are retired, and for whom theatre is anywhere between a hobby, an avocation, or a passion. There is no “standardized” process for mounting a production, so companies have different ways of doing it. Although there are always exceptions, most of these folks have no formal training in theatre: they joined the group as volunteers, learned by doing, and often tried different jobs in the company.

One of these jobs is often that of set designer. Someone will volunteer to help build or paint the set, decide they like it, do it a few more times, and eventually decide they want to design a set. So they do a set and then look around for other companies that need set designers, and, in effect, hang up a shingle that says, “Set Designer.”

Remember, I’m trying to keep this brief. 🙂

Is there anything wrong with that? No. Some of these people have done their homework and turned out nice designs, and in some cases excellent designs, often working as volunteers or for a small stipend.

But it does create some recurring problems and a lot of confusion.

One of the recurring problems is that non-professional theatres often have differing expectations about what a set designer does and how he does it: they’ve been “doing it this way” for years, and seem to believe that that’s how everyone else does it. And this problem only perpetuates itself when these companies hire designers who have no formal training, since the designers themselves often don’t understand the process.

So, some companies want strictly volunteer designers, others pay a stipend, and others pay rates that approach union fees. Some expect the set designers to just design and then turn the drawings over to the companies’ builders and painters; some expect the designer to either help build or to become the head builder and painter; some expect the set designer to do all this plus provide props and furniture; and so on. It varies: one from this column and one from that column. Sadly, this difference in expectations can lead to… ahhh… rather unpleasant discussions and finger-pointing later.

It’s really important that the expectations (on both sides) be clear and in writing before hiring a designer. I wrote about the project schedule in another post, and this too needs to be clear up front, as well as the budget and other variables. If the company or the designer feel the expectations are not a good match, this is the time to either negotiate the terms or to politely turn down the partnership. It’s only business.

One suggestion I would make to young designers is to remember that their name is going to be on the set that ends up on the stage. Any add-ons, changes, short-cuts, construction quality issues, and/or replacements made by someone else will still have the set designer’s name on them. And that set, intentionally or not, will be an advertisement for the set designer’s work.

Educational theatres (high schools and colleges) are pretty much like community theatres in that sometimes they have a professional staff and other times they don’t. Sometimes they hire outside designers, and sometimes the same differences in expectations come up.

To sum up, it’s really just a matter of open communication up front and making sure that the production company and the set designer agree as to the scope of work.